On June 3rd, 2019, my girlfriend and I started our year-long trip around the world. During the past nine months, we hiked across Spain, slept in an Irish yurt, drove a tuk-tuk around Sri Lanka, explored islands in Malaysia, and surfed the Philippines. Basically, all the fun stuff you’d expect people to do on a massive RTW trip.
And it’s been great.
But around New Years, everything started to change.
The outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has fundamentally changed not just our trip, but the way we all travel — possibly forever.
Over the past few months in Southeast Asia, we’ve dealt with confusing misinformation, scarcity of basic supplies, anxiety about quarantines and last-minute travel bans, flight cancellations and rerouting, and both the strange uncertainty — and surprising normalcy — that happens when you travel the world during a potential pandemic.
Here’s everything I’ve learned about being a tourist during a global health crisis and what the 2020 coronavirus outbreak could mean for travel in the future.
Understanding the Initial Outbreak
Like everyone else, my girlfriend and I heard the initial news about a mysterious outbreak in China around New Years (it wasn’t called “COVID-19” or even a “coronavirus” until weeks later). We combed the internet for information about the impact of the disease, affected countries, and anything we could do to protect ourselves while our friends and family sent a flurry of “Stay safe out there!” messages.
It was a little worrying, but honestly, the information was sparse and focused almost exclusively on China. Since we didn’t have plans to visit China (mainland or otherwise), we shrugged the mysterious outbreak off as a problem, but not something that would impact our trip. (I’ve been traveling for over 15 years, so I’ve learned to roll with the punches and assess risk as things develop.)
Then the number of infected people in China started to climb. And the newly dubbed “COVID-19” coronavirus started to spread over borders and into all of our lives.
‘Coronavirus’ Dominates My Search History
As a traveler, you tend to be a little less connected to the daily news cycle than everyone back home — it’s partly why I love to travel so much. I have no idea what songs or movies came out in the past nine months, and I don’t really care.
But when something bad happens nearby, it quickly becomes the only thing that you see, hear, and talk about. Coronavirus news took over my YouTube feed and health updates and statistics quickly became part of my morning routine. I read a lot of BBC and New York Times with a dash of CNN.
In January, we were in the (then unaffected) Philippines, but soon we’d have to travel to Malaysia and even Singapore. And that meant encountering coronavirus measures firsthand.
How to Fly in the Age of Epidemics
Our first brush with travel during the coronavirus outbreaks was a connecting flight from the Philippines through Kuala Lumpur in late January. Malaysia had single-digit infection numbers at that point, and the Philippines had zero cases, but even at the start of the outbreak, you could feel the uncertainty and fear starting to grip airports and other travel hubs.
Everyone wore masks (including us) and kept to themselves as much as possible. Our travel day was subdued, but edgy as no one really knew what was happening even though we were getting 24-hour news coverage of the outbreak.
We take for granted how quickly we absorb technical information — terms like “community transmission” are commonplace now and most people can spot an N95 respirator mask at a hundred paces. But at the start of the outbreak most places — including airports — didn’t even have things like hand sanitizer available.
Heck, I’d never even seen one of those thermal scanning stations in action until that flight, and I travel a lot. Now thermal scanning is a regular part of not just airports and public transit, but corporate lobbies, schools, and daily life around Asia and Europe (but from what I can see, not the U.S. yet).
And much like increased security screening and metal detectors at airports after the attacks on 9/11, I think thermal and biological security screening systems are going to be a big—and permanent—part of our future.
Waiting out the Coronavirus
Ultimately, we’ve been lucky with our travel plans. We visited Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines, in 2019 before the coronavirus existed. And in February we left SE Asia for a month of relaxed travel in Sri Lanka when the virus really started to spread in Asia.
We actually kind of forgot about the coronavirus outbreak while we were in Sri Lanka thanks to the slow(er) internet, and busy days of hiking and surfing (a.k.a. “not being on our phones”). Plus the lack of coronavirus cases in Sri Lanka.
I Really Wish I Knew This Before I Drove a Tuk Tuk Around Sri Lanka
Travel gets real when you’re on three wheels
We could buy hand sanitizer in the store for less than a dollar. We didn’t even look for face masks in Sri Lanka, but I’m sure they were in stock. And at the time, coronavirus looked like it might be contained with China.
Then the situation changed again.
Coronavirus Hits ‘Home’
In late January, Singapore became the first coronavirus “hotspot” outside of China. And that meant that coronavirus had officially entered our travel plans.
My brother lives in Singapore with his partner and two kids, so naturally, we’d visited him several times during our travels (prior to the outbreak). And we had plans to stay with him again before heading to Australia in March.
But the spike in cases during February and the increasing fear of blanket travel bans for people that had been to Singapore (like China) became a real concern. If our flight to Australia was delayed, we’d miss our next flight, and could potentially have to cancel the last three months of the trip (if the U.S. would even allow us to come back).
But on a personal level, Singapore was our hub — our home away from home while traveling. It was the place we could crash for a few days and a spare room to leave some of our heavier gear behind.
We did laundry in Singapore. We visited the hawker centers for delicious dumplings and fresh juice. We knew the neighborhoods, and we played with my two young nieces and watched them grow up between visits.
And now we had to rethink our visit there if we wanted to keep traveling.
For months, Singapore had been our refuge. It was the first place we landed in Asia, and where we planned to leave for the final stage of our trip. But with just one word — coronavirus — our travel hub had become a pariah.
‘Risking It’ in Singapore & Australia
Due to financial reasons (we couldn’t afford a direct flight from Sri Lanka to Melbourne) and a desire to see my family, we flew through Singapore last month to see my brother. And even though things were a little tense (some people wore masks and used scanners) life had largely returned to normal there.
I’m really glad we came through Singapore because it was an education in how different countries respond to a health crisis.
We had to get thermally scanned to drop my niece off at school, and many people were working from home, but restaurants and cafes, malls, buses, and other services were all open. And while crowds were way down, it wasn’t the ghost town you see reported on in other parts of the world.
Singapore has an excellent health care system with a history of containing and treating diseases like SARS in 2003. Combine that with a competent, well-funded, centralized government in a small island nation, and you get an effective response to an outbreak. It also doesn’t hurt that the Singaporeans tend to respect quarantine measures.
We obviously kept public outings to a minimum, but the overall vibe was one of cautious optimism. People there knew what was happening, and citizens knew their role in preventing the spread of the disease. They even stopped bulk buying toilet paper after a few days of panic.
The same has been true here in Australia.
Coronavirus cases are still in double digits in Australia, and while the coronavirus is on everyone’s mind, simple effective steps like regularly washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, self-quarantining if you’re sick, not touching your face, minimizing public contact, and remote work have largely slowed the spread of the virus here — at least for now.
When I look at the situation developing in the U.S. right now, I’m a little less optimistic.
Trying to Outrun the Global Spread of Coronavirus
Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus spread through Europe, Australia, and the US more and more of our friends and family back home have asked how we’re coping with the coronavirus.
And while I appreciate their concern, my reply has remained the same, “How are you coping with the coronavirus?”
Because despite what you see in the news, outside of a few quarantined areas in Italy, Korea, and China, and special cases like cruise ships, we’ve been in places with far fewer cases and much lower risk of infection than the (seemingly) unprepared U.S. healthcare system right now.
The Danger of the Coronavirus in the U.S.
People often ask if I feel unsafe when I travel. And the answer is, of course. I’ve got a few harrowing stories I can tell you over a beer. But honestly, most of the dangerous things that have happened to me have been on American soil.
Heck, I’ve been mugged at gunpoint — twice — but both times were in my native state, California.
And while I’m as cautious as I can be when I travel abroad (I get the recommended travel vaccines and read travel alerts) I’m usually more nervous about getting sick in the U.S. where I’ve had little (or no) health coverage in the past, compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars of health insurance while I travel.
What I can say is that I’ve learned a lot about healthcare systems around the world by watching the coronavirus outbreak from a traveler’s perspective these past three months. And it confirms my suspicions that the U.S. lags far behind.
Countries with Local COVID-19 Transmission
According to daily updates from the WHO, as of March 8, 2020, the list of countries experiencing local transmissions (a.k.a. cases not connected to travelers) includes dozens of popular travel destinations:
- China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia
- Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, and Romania
The Middle East
- Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon
North & South America
- Canada, U.S., Mexico, and most of South America
- Australia & New Zealand
That’s a lot of places. 105 countries with over 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of the writing of this article. Heck, during the first half of our trip we went to six of those countries (before the outbreak, obviously). But those numbers don’t address one of the biggest potential outbreaks in the world right now—the U.S.
Should You Travel During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
Whether you should cancel your trip is a complicated and personal question. I’m obviously not a health professional or epidemiological expert.
I’m hopeful that the U.S. will continue to test for and contain the spread of coronavirus like Singapore and even South Korea have done over the past few weeks. But I have to say I’m kind of relieved not to be in the U.S. right now.
Compared to what I’ve seen in Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Australia, the U.S. feels wholly unprepared for this latest epidemic, and the fact that the coronavirus outbreaks is turning into a political numbers game is unreal.
New York (where I lived before going on this trip) is experiencing testing kit shortages with over 4,000 people under forced quarantine. California and Washington (I’m from California and lived in Seattle for a year) are experiencing spikes of infections with almost no information for how people can get tested or what they should do at work or with their children.
Traveling during an outbreak is scary. But common-sense precautions like washing your hands, not touching your face, and complying with existing travel bans, are more than enough to keep you safe.
Obviously, older travelers and anyone with a compromised immune system should personally assess their own travel risks, but as a young, healthy traveler, I feel relatively safe traveling the world during the coronavirus outbreak.
When Should You Cancel Your Trip?
I’ve had to cancel big trips in the past. My father passed away five years ago while I was hiking in Peru, so I’m no stranger to tragedy pulling me home from a trip.
Things happen when we travel — a death in the family, sudden marriage announcement, births, graduations, even something as simple as running out money can shorten your trip.
I’ve dealt with all kinds of problems and complications while traveling, and it’s always been ok. But for the first time, it feels like what it means to be a traveler is changing.
Borders are closing. Blame is being thrown at different people all over the world. The global economy is in freefall. People have stopped shaking hands and started thermally scanning you before you’re allowed inside.
But the biggest consequence of COVID-19 is that it’s shown everyone what travelers have known all along: The world is more connected and infinitely more fragile than we realize.
Stay safe out there, wherever you are.